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S For Smartphone, S For Suicide

An increasing number of cases of teenaged school students committing suicide due to lack of a smartphone for attending their online classes

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Over the last 3 months, I have come across an increasing number of cases of teenaged school students committing suicide due to lack of a smartphone for attending their online classes in this “new normal” teaching.

On the 4th of June, a life was lost in Velachery village in Kerala. 

On the 8th of June, a life was lost in Kotdharmu village in Punjab.

On the 20th of June, a life was lost in Nischinda village in West Bengal.

On the 10th of July, a life was lost in Thakurmura village in Tripura.

On the 19th of August, a life was lost in Saagade village in Karnataka.

They are all young girls whose parents were either farm laborers or daily wage workers who had lost their jobs or just simply could not afford to buy a good quality smartphone for their children to be part of the online classes.

These are just 5 reported cases out of many more, I am sure. There have also been cases of fathers taking their own lives due to their inability to procure a smartphone. The chief minister of one state has gone on record to accept that they should have distributed smartphones across villages under a special scheme to prepare for this new method of teaching.

Schools are shut hence students are going online every day by the millions to ensure they do not lag behind the rest of the class. Assignments are given and submitted online. In some states like Assam, classes are also held via Doordarshan. This is being held up as a shining example of the new digital India. 

Yet, young lives are being lost. Teens are being driven to the extreme in the anxiety of being left behind for lack of the medium of education today – either a smartphone or a television set or proper connectivity at home. In a country where we are comfortably numb about deaths around us, we may take pride in the millions who are benefiting from online classes while regarding the suicides as aberrations. If this pandemic continues further, and schools remain shut for longer, can someone continue to be numb about more such deaths?  

As of September 2019, in spite of 500 million owners, smartphone penetration in India is only at 36.69% as per Newzoo Global Mobile Market Report, ranking 18th in the world. And most of the phones are concentrated in urban centers. Rural India is yet to adopt an entry-level smartphone that costs a minimum of Rs.5000 in good numbers. Add to that the issues of connectivity and data charges. Though the lowest in the world at only Rs.18.50 / 1GB [$0.26] as per Cable.co.uk 2019 report, it is a definite dent in the pocket of someone who depends on Rs.178.44 per day under MNREGA. 

Dodgy connections and bandwidth issues plague our less entitled brethren across the 600,000 villages. Smartphones need to be of certain screen size for the children to see and read clearly. This raises fundamental questions. Why should children be forced to sit in front of digital screens for hours every day? Why should millions be forced to spend on data packages well beyond their means? Why should we as a welfare state not expect primary education to be reached to every child wherever required at whatever cost to the state? If an Indian child has the fundamental right to “free and compulsory” education till 14 years of age, why should the parents be expected to bear the costs of smartphones and data packages? Unless this is a grand plan to make certain data providers richer by the day and give smartphone makers a sliver of a market hitherto untapped!

What could the Central Ministry of Education have done in the months of April and May? 

First, resolved to abide by the commitment under the Right to Education Act to provide free education to each child at no additional cost. To ensure this during the pandemic, launched a simple grass-roots national education delivery program involving all central and state education boards. This would be “Project Shiksha”.

Second, decided to earmark at least one room in each of the 125,000 post offices and 250,000 Gram Panchayat offices across the country as a dedicated classroom called Shiksha Ghar. All basic health and hygiene systems, furniture, distancing procedures, and packed food should have been in place. 

Third, asked Doordarshan to set up dedicated channels, by language, to be used for teaching. The 1400 terrestrial transmitters and 46 studios should have been used for seamless transmission throughout the day. Each state would have at least one dedicated DD Shiksha channel running 24x7 not only holding classes but transmitting knowledge through programs sourced from within and across the world on history, geography, wildlife, ecology, practical science, etc. 

Fourth, asked television makers under the “Make in India” initiative to provide close to 1.5 million 50-inch LED screen sets to be used in the Shiksha Rooms. 

Fifth, had the state education boards set up daily class schedules and rolled out teaching via DD on television sets. Students, class-wise would be at the Shiksha Rooms completing their classes and assignments at one go. Then there would be special knowledge enhancement program screenings for the rest of the day for anyone to attend and enjoy. Children, being more responsible than adults, would maintain all procedures of hygiene and safety.

This would have ensured coverage of all 600,000 villages through the Panchayat and post office networks. This would have ensured a boost to the production of televisions, furniture, and other equipment to create the Shiksha Rooms. This would have given employment to local people for undertaking the transformations. And most importantly, this would have ensured not a single parent in a village had to buy a smartphone or a data package to ensure the child got what is a fundamental right…free and compulsory education!

The young helpless lives lost are a reminder of our economic progress that remains hugely polarised, exclusive, and grossly unequal. They were individual dreams and aspirations of having a better future than their parents, in a “new” India that is so pompously talked about. Each life lost just because someone in a seat of power did not really bother to think things through in the reality we live in. 

The NEP 2020 has just been announced with the grand vision of transforming the education system and making it ready for the new world order. Wish it had a specific curriculum for parliamentarians and policymakers on moral science and basics of governance! Jai Hind! 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


Avik Chattopadhyay

The author is an auto industry consultant and cofounder of Expereal.

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